- Researchers have discovered that orangutans possess vocal abilities similar to beatboxing, where they can produce two different sounds simultaneously.
- The study suggests that these vocal abilities in orangutans may have existed in ancient, extinct relatives of humans and could have influenced the development of human speech.
- The vocal control and coordination abilities of wild great apes, including orangutans, have been underestimated compared to the focus on vocal abilities in birds.
- Further research is needed to understand how orangutans develop their beatboxing-like calls and to explore the connections between bird vocalizations, great ape vocalizations, and human speech.
Beatboxing became popular in the 1980s, when Doug E. Fresh performed the style around the New York City hip-hop scene. However, the seeds of this vocal technique, which involves making two sounds at once, can be found hundreds of years ago in the vibrato of the Zulu isicathamiya vocalists and tabla bols of Hindustani singers. But could this vocal style have roots further back?
According to a new study in PNAS Nexus, researchers have found some clues in one of our closest animal kin— the orangutans. Researchers observed orangutans for 3,800 hours in Borneo and Sumatra, recording two populations making beatbox-like vocalizations.
“Humans rarely produce voiced and voiceless noises simultaneously. The exception is beatboxing,” Madeleine Hardus, study co-author, said in a statement. “But the very fact that humans are anatomically able to beatbox, raises questions about where that ability came from. We know now the answer could lie within the evolution of our ancestors.”
Orangutans can produce special calls that involve combining two different sounds. For example, females in Sumatra produce “kiss squeaks” at the same time as “rolling calls” to alert other orangutans of predators. The study’s authors say this highlights their impressive vocal control and coordination skills.
“Humans use the lips, tongue, and jaw to make the unvoiced sounds of consonants, while activating the vocal folds in the larynx with exhaled air to make the voiced, open sounds of vowels,” Adriano Lameira, associate professor of psychology at the University of Warwick and co-author of the research, said. “Orangutans are also capable of producing both types of sounds—and both at once.”
The authors say this finding suggests that similar vocal abilities may have existed in ancient, extinct relatives of humans and could have influenced the development of human speech.
“The fact that two separate populations of orangutans were observed making two calls simultaneously, is proof that this is a biological phenomenon,” Lameira said.
The evolution of speech is a long-standing mystery in science. Researchers have studied songbirds for many years to learn about the complex brain and cognitive changes involved in advanced vocal control. However, the vocal abilities of great apes, our closest living relatives, have been overlooked, even though they are the best examples of behaviors before human speech. The authors argue that we have underestimated the vocal control and coordination abilities of wild great apes compared to the attention given to the vocal abilities of birds.
“Producing two sounds, exactly how birds produce song, resembles spoken language but bird anatomy has no similarity to our own, so it is difficult to make links between birdsong, and spoken human language,” Hardus said.
Speech, and possibly human singing, likely originated from diverse vocal abilities that already existed in our ancestors. The authors call for more research studying both birds and apes to gain insights into the specific characteristics of the human body and brain that made speech possible.
More research is also needed to understand how orangutans develop or learn their ability to produce their “beatboxing” calls. However, the similarity between how humans learn beatboxing and other great apes learn vocalizations suggests that practicing and listening to sounds could play a role.
“Now that we know this vocal ability is part of the great ape repertoire, we can’t ignore the evolutionary links,” Lameira said. “It could be possible that early human language resembled something that sounded more like beatboxing.”
Adriano R Lameira , Madeleine E Hardus, Wild orangutans can simultaneously use two independent vocal sound sources similarly to songbirds and human beatboxers, PNAS Nexus, Volume 2, Issue 6, June 2023, pgad182, https://doi.org/10.1093/pnasnexus/pgad182
Banner image of mother and baby orangutans in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia. Image by Carine06 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.